A History of Madness... ii

Author: joe

Monday, 21 May, 2007 - 22:27

The incommensurability of epistemes [a History of Madness... i] and some moot questions: is the past not only a foreign country, but the story of what might as well be another species? And in any case, how would we know?

The thesis is: as societies develop new ways of knowing the world - such as Enlightenment principles, rationalism and science - new epistemes arise which mark a profound break with the past. This throws into chaos the Whig theory of history, and any sense of teleological progress - whether Hegelian or Marxian. It also implicitly renders such rationalism and scienticity equally subject to future overhaul and justified revolt. It forces us to confront the rise of 'ways of knowing' as manifestations of the 'will to power', if not merely the 'will to will'. And it opens all humanities types who inherit this intellectual hinterland to the criticism that they are postmodern relativists and, therefore, cowards.

I don't quite understand this criticism myself. Today I heard Clive James offering up a precis of his latest book on Start the Week, Cultural Amnesia (the 'fate' of liberal democracies). He described Jean-Paul Sartre as 'the villain of the piece', saying that as an intellectual, his ideas offered comfort to extremists on both the right and the left, Nazis and Stalinists, in the middle of the 20th century; but he also offered the disclaimer that he picked on Sartre because, of all the relevant intellectuals, he hadn't been vilified as much as others. Quite apart from wondering why appropriations of Sartre's version of existentialism are necessarily to be laid at his door, it does imply the vilification is simply a case of it being 'his turn'.

James' book looks worth reading, but his off-the-cuff remarks point at a common tendency to ravage intellectuals of the last half of the 20th century for the flimsiest of reasons. In any case, no-one I've ever come across has persuaded me that any anti-foundationalist argument, whether based on Foucault, Sartre or Derrida, inevitably leads to the collapse of anything at all. Actually it seems to me that to rely on some 'universal principle' - whether God, morality or evolutionary imperative - is intellectually bankrupt, since it ultimately requires argument from authority - faith in something beyond comprehension.

The attacks on Foucault's ideas, however, are based this time on less flimsy reasons, and it requires some sophistry to argue the case for or against. The argument is that Foucault's historiography is flawed, lazy, incompetent and ultimately inaccurate. His example of the ship of fools, which was supposed to be a floating asylum, sailing up and down the rivers of central Europe, and which Foucault claimed was much more than a mere symbolic notion dreamed up in art and story, was in fact precisely an allegory rather than a fact, and no such loony vessel ever hove into any medieval port.

It is claimed, then, that such oversights, or incompetencies if you prefer, render the other claims Foucault makes redundant. If the man couldn't even manage the basic task of accurate historical research, why should we pay any mind to the conclusions which he bases on such inadequate foundations?

It is a very good question: if we want to understand the functions and mechanisms of history and of knowledge, surely we should at least start by getting the facts right? But then, if Foucault is right, then perhaps our demand for methodological coherence, evidence and facts is just another symptom of the episteme we found ourselves operating in. Perhaps the attack on Foucault is exemplary of the competition between kinds of knowledge, an expression of the will to power of those who come after.

And perhaps my distrust of argument from authority is just a symptom of my existence at a point in time? The question is, how could we tell? What is my method?

Categories: michel-foucault, knowledge, episteme, epistemology, history-of-madness, enlightenment, postmodernism, whig-interpretation-of-history,
Comments: 4


I read the first chapter of the 'whole book' and then noticed it was due back to the library 2 days before. I managed despite this to glean enough in order to bastardise his thought into a raised eyebrow at this forthcoming pdp essay.
I heard on the radio recently that foucault is currently unfashionable in some acedemic circles. This seemed to me to support his questions about the unquestionable virtue of knowledge in our 'episteme'. Is knowledge as fickle as knickerbockers.

As ever i return to mis-metaphors:
As far as i know the Blue Peter time capsules are the only way to travel between episteme, although you'd better be prepared to have your then outdated haircut ridiculed by fat children.
I'd probably go along with Foucault with regards to scientific rigour: this is the field of ideas my friend; and us cows can shit wherever we like.

I noticed you haven't had a comment in a while; hopefully this will help your garden of the mind seem a little less empty, albeit with the theoretical grace of a gnome.

Author: Oliver Sent: 2007-05-22 20:22:23

we're definitely talking different epistemes here, I think :)

Author: joe Sent: 2007-05-22 23:17:58

but how would we know?
I only read foucault for about 10 minutes and have a tendency to ignore what a book is trying to say.
All i know is that in your stoic garden i'm the ugly kitch gnome in the corner looking very out of place.

Author: Oliver Sent: 2007-05-23 00:18:39

in your awesome animation, I got the impression you sympathised with the existential character most :)

Author: joe Sent: 2007-05-23 08:01:58

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